Is it safe to ride in the dark?

All of us will at some point or other struggle to get to the yard before the sun goes down. This is particularly a problem in winter when the days are much shorter, but can still cause issues at other times of the year. Many of us are happy to accept that this means the occasional ride will get skipped because of a late evening at work, but for horses in competition, a reduction in workload, with skipped sessions, is simply not an option. There are, as with all things, mixed views on the safety of riding in the dark. We look at some of the issues.

Type of riding

Some people love to go trail riding in the moonlight. This can be a real adventure, but must only be done on trails you have previously ridden with your horse, and with other riders. If you intend on going near any regions where there may be motorists, you need to ensure that you and your horse are wearing fluorescent, reflective gear. It is also best to ride on a night when the moon is as close to full as possible, as this provides the best ambient lighting. Be smart and avoid narrow trails that have lots of obstacles.

If you are wanting to night ride in the arena, the best option is obviously to have floodlit arenas. This can, however, be expensive, so setting up a bit of gentle lighting around the arena using glow sticks can be enough to allow you to do a proper schooling session. Again, your horse must be familiar with the arena, and you must do a recce in the light to ensure that the footing is good.

Your horse’s best vision

Horses see very well at night, and certain ‘purists’ prefer to ride without any artificial lighting to help the way. However, most of us would feel more comfortable with some additional lighting, especially if we are going out on a trail.

Glow sticks, which can be bought from most outdoor stores and have a life of about eight to 12 hours, can be an excellent choice. These sticks are tubes that, when activated, emit a dusk-like light that lights the surroundings without destroying your horse’s natural night vision entirely. Securing these to your horse’s tack in some way can make for a nicely lit walk. Carrying a flashlight on your horse, ideally in a saddlebag, is also a good idea if on an outride, but this should only be used in absolute emergencies, as it will ruin both your horse’s and your night vision, and the sudden influx of light may cause your horse to spook.

Lots of people who ride at night opt instead to wear a headlight, but this is in fact a big no-no, as with a headlight your horse’s eyes will follow the light wherever you shine it (wherever you are looking), not on the path you are on. Ensure that anyone you are riding with understands these concerns regarding bright lights. There is nothing worse than walking along safely, when suddenly a friend shining their torch causes you and your horse to disappear blindly into the distance.

The reason behind the issues with riding in the dark with bright torches is that in the dark, your horse’s pupils dilate to let as much light in as possible. This provides him with excellent night vision, relative to humans. If, however, you use a too bright light for riding at night, you risk causing your horse’s pupils to constrict, despite the dark surroundings outside of the beams of light, thus limiting his night vision considerably.

Pace

Only ever walk if you are hacking at night, as obstacles such as low-hanging branches, for example, can approach must faster in the dark. In an arena, depending on the lighting and the going, you are likely to be able to try the faster paces.

Wildlife

Remember that a lot of wildlife is more active at night, and if your horse sees monsters everywhere in the day, he is more than a little likely to see monsters at night too, especially being as there are more living creatures on the prowl in these late-night hours.

Remember that night riding is only truly safe in South Africa after the first few frosts, when most of the midges that cause illness such as African Horse Sickness (AHS) have gone into hibernation. Riding at night with a light will already attract all kinds of beetles and bugs, as will the horse’s sweat, so it is definitely best to avoid night riding at any time when the midges that carry those most dangerous illnesses are out and about.

Route planning

Choose sensible routes for your path to the arena or for your trail ride. Open spaces are safer, in case your horse decides to spook, and because they tend to be better naturally lit than closed-off spaces under trees. Night time is not a good time to go ‘exploring’ on horseback, so stick to routes you know well, and with which your horse is familiar.

Night riding can be great fun, and can be an excellent way to develop trust and the bond between you and your horse. As with all things horse-riding related, however, it is not totally safe, and requires that you take a few extra precautions before heading out for your first night-time foray. If your ride is well prepared and all of those going with you know what to expect, it can be a huge success.